The Odd Couple: Krok & Saak
This traditional pair of cooking utensils is still widely used, but not for long. Although many electrical appliances have appeared in Thai kitchens, the traditional krok and saak (mortar and pestle) are still among the most commonly used utensils in food preparation. However, it may not be long before these tools can be found only in cultural museums and antique shops.
Nevertheless, krok and saak are so ingrained in Thai culture that they are often mentioned as humorous metaphors in modern speech. It is often said of women and men who are thought to make good couples that "they go together like krok and saak." And a quiet, unmotivated person is often said to be as "still as a saak." So even if these tried and true tools are relegated to the annals of history, their humorous metaphorical legacy is sure to live on in Thailand.
More popular these days are the ceramic versions of krok and saak, which are typically used in herbal pharmacies and beauty salons to blend powdered clay or other concoctions with water. But they would never hold up in a Thai kitchen.
The best cooking krok is made of stone or baked clay, but the best saak can only be made of toddy-palm wood. Many Thais believe that nam prik (curry paste) turns out best only when pounded in a stone krok with a palm wood saak. They say a stone saak in a stone krok crushes the paste too finely, making it too spicy.
Toddy-palm trees are found most commonly in Ayutthaya, Angthong, Suphan Buri and Phetchaburi. But in Phetchaburi, where palm trees are highly valued for their sugar production, no one wants to cut them down. In more recent times, saak makers have looked for their raw materials in the rice fields, where trees may grow naturally.
For a toddy palm tree to be suitable for saak making, it should be at least 40 years old. The outside part of the trunk is typically divided into 10 blocks, each of which produces 10 saak. That means one trunk only makes 100 saak.
Saak making is no quick and easy task either. They are made by turning on a lathe. To achieve a smooth surface, the traditional way is to turn the lathes with the feet. Only about 50 saak a day can be made using this method. But with the introduction of electric motors, saak makers can obviously produce more.
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer palm wood saak are being produced today. The only producers left in Thailand reside in the Klong Sra Bua Village in Ayutthaya. Villagers recall a time when saak making was the livelihood of the entire village, before toddy palm wood became so rare and expensive. Now, only five houses still make saak, and younger generations show little interest in continuing the tradition. But closer to home, the vendors at the hilltop temple at Phayao Lake have a wide selection of krok and saak.
Many Thais are in the habit of keeping a krok and saak in the kitchen. If you have a palm wood saak, take good care of it. It's a Thai cultural icon, and could be quite a valuable item in the future.
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